Texting while driving an automobile has become a huge problem; texting while boating can be even more dangerous with traffic coming from all directions.
By Keith "Catfish" Sutton
Five seconds. Count them. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thousand five.
That's how long you take your eyes off the road when sending or receiving a text message while driving, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission. While many boat operators never think about it, if you're texting while boating, the same amount of time will pass, and being distracted in this manner can lead to serious problems on the water.
Unlike cars on highways, boats can approach from all directions, come in many vastly different sizes and may move at very different rates of speed. If you use your smartphone or other electronic devices while onboard your craft, it's extremely important that you be aware of the risks of distracted boating.
"Cellphones are the primary communication device for many boaters," said Ted Sensenbrenner, assistant director of boating safety for the BoatUS Foundation, a non-profit group representing recreational boaters. "So while they're important to all of us, we have to know how to use them wisely. If you're texting from the helm, you're likely not helming the boat."
Sensenbrenner said boating's unique stressors of sun, glare, wind, waves and vibration could increase the likelihood of problems. Research shows that hours of exposure to these things produce a kind of a fatigue, or "boater's hypnosis," which slows reaction time almost as much as if you were legally drunk. Adding alcohol multiplies the accident risk.
Impetus for Change
Two highly publicized boating accidents in 2009 focused increased attention on the issue of texting while boating.
On Dec. 5 that year, a 25-foot-long U.S. Coast Guard response boat manned by three crew members was traveling in the main shipping channel in the harbor at Charleston, S.C. The Coast Guard boat was returning to port around 8:30 p.m. after providing a security escort to a cargo ship when it collided with a 55-foot boat full of passengers enjoying a nighttime sightseeing cruise. Six of the 24 people aboard the sightseeing boat had to be treated for injuries, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in its report on the accident, but fortunately no one was killed.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of the collision was the inadequate lookout by the crew members of both vessels, given the speed at which they were being operated and the nighttime conditions. But the fact that Coast Guard crew members in that accident were texting or talking on cellphones at the time of the crash was a contributing factor.
Fifteen days later, in San Diego, a man borrowed his father's 26-foot boat and invited two other families to join his group aboard the craft to watch the annual Parade of Lights on San Diego Bay. The boat's occupants had just watched a fireworks display when a 33-foot Coast Guard patrol boat responding to a report of a grounded vessel slammed into the smaller boat, killing an 8-year-old boy and seriously injuring five others. It was first believed that Coast Guard officers were using cellphones when the deadly collision occurred, although the NTSB later said it erred in that initial determination.
Following these two accidents, in August 2010, the NTSB urged the Coast Guard to put new restrictions on distracted boating. Debbie Hersman, then chair of the NTSB, said, "The use of wireless communications devices while operating vehicles in any mode of transportation poses an unacceptable distraction €¦ Lives are being unnecessarily put at risk and lost."
NTSB's recommendations included restrictions on cellphone use by its officers and issuing a broad safety advisory to the entire maritime industry warning of the risks posed by using cellphones while driving a boat. In response, the Coast Guard prohibited cellphone use by its boat operators and restricted their use by other crew members.
Accident statistics show why addressing distracted boating and improper lookout landed in the number three spot on National Association of State Boating Law Administrators' 2015-16 Top 10 Most Wanted List of Recreational Boating Safety Improvements. Reduce boating under the influence of alcohol and other drugs and increase life jacket wear were the only two items higher on the list.
National statistics from the past five years reveal that operator inattention and improper lookout, combined, accounted for between 22 and 24 percent of the total reported boating accidents annually, keeping them squarely among the top five primary contributing factors for each of those years.
During that same period, they also combined to account for between 9 and 14 percent of boating-related fatalities annually.
The Coast Guard describes operator inattention as "Failure on the part of the operator to pay attention to the vessel, its occupants or the environment in which the vessel is operating." Although it's difficult to determine how many boating accidents actually happen as a result of boat operators or lookouts texting or otherwise using electronic devices such as cellphones, laptops and tablets, there's little doubt such activities are a big part of the problem. Rapid growth in the use of wireless devices wreaks havoc for operators of all types of vehicles, including boats.
Texting while boating is only part of the problem. Reports indicate that many other activities can contribute to distracted boating accidents as well. These include eating/drinking, talking to passengers, reading (including maps) and adjusting the stereo or electronics. Just a few moments of inattention caused by actions such as these can lead to injuries or even deaths when boats collide with other boats or unnoticed obstructions, or when a craft swamps or capsizes because the driver didn't see big waves or wakes. You cannot operate a boat safely unless the task of operating the craft has your full attention. Any non-driving activity you engage in is a potential distraction and increases your risk of crashing.
Tips for Safer Boating
- With distractions more prevalent than ever — more than 150 billion text messages are sent in the U.S. every month, for example — how can you, and those you love, be safer? Here are a few tips from Safeco Insurance that apply to boat drivers as well as drivers on the road.
- Don't use the phone. This includes texting as well as talking, unless it's an emergency. Even hands-free conversations can take your attention off the water or road.
- Eat before you leave, or after you get there. Scarfing down that burger with one hand on the wheel means your focus is divided, and you probably don't have as much control over your boat or car as you should.
- Know where you're going. Nobody likes to be lost. But messing around with your boat or car's GPS (or the maps app on your smartphone) while you're moving can lead to something you'll hate even more — an accident.
- Talk to your family about safe boating and driving. Having a conversation with your spouse as they're driving a boat or car provides the perfect opportunity to say, "I'll let you focus on what's ahead; we can talk when we arrive at our destination." And if you have young boaters or drivers in the household, be sure to have a conversation about their phones and other potential issues, such as their passengers — a key distraction for teens.
- Watch for other distracted boaters and drivers. Just because you aren't distracted doesn't mean that others are focused on safely operating their boat or car. Stay in control and be vigilant. You'll be ready to react when someone else makes the wrong move.
Distracted boating isn't just "one of those things" that happens, like a mechanical failure that isn't anyone's fault. It's 100-percent preventable, and by committing to avoiding distractions while you're operating a boat, you'll help make the water safer for everyone.